Comedian Helen Lederer: I wish I’d been kinder to myself

Extreme dieting, career setbacks and the darker side of comedy all feature in Helen Lederer’s memoir. By Hannah Stephenson.

Helen Lederer

After 40 years in comedy, Helen Lederer seems to be able to see the funny side of everything, whether it’s popping up most recently as Ken Barlow’s online date on Corrie, recalling her stand-up hecklers or experiences on reality TV including Celebrity Big Brother.

Yet reading her new memoir, Not That I’m Bitter, it’s clear life hasn’t always been fun and games, as she recounts darker misogynistic anecdotes in her early years, inappropriate behaviour from a producer, and agents who either sacked her or stole from her.

If she can get a laugh out of the situations in which she finds herself though, she does so in the book.

“If I think I’m going to get a laugh, I bloody well do it. To me, laughing is everything and I’ve been quite ruthless with myself,” she says today.

“I’m just hoping this [the book] is a little window of time gone by where I hope I am, in my new, original way, trying to find humour in life.”

Lederer’s comedy career began among the cream of the crop of the Eighties alternative comedy circuit, with Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. She guest-starred in Bottom and Saturday Live and later starred as Catriona in Ab Fab.

She says in those early comedy days in the Eighties and Nineties sexual harassment was not given the attention it is now: “The climate for people in control to go beyond was obviously there, because nowadays people would lose their jobs for the similar behaviour.”

She never thought too much about bad behaviour in the industry when she was coming through it, she admits.

“You’re not there to attract those situations, you’re there to do your work. I suppose the skill of maturity is that you can navigate inevitable excitement. I wasn’t ever a victim. Situations which were not ideal occurred and our job was to navigate them.”

Aside from that, the comedian and writer, now 69, has much to say about frequently being the co-star – on the peripheries of true stardom, but hungry enough to accept smaller roles – and it’s difficult to work out if she’s finding this funny or upsetting. She appeared in The Young Ones and Ab Fab but never got her own TV show or found a comedy partner like French and Saunders.

Ben Elton has described her as one of the “early (and not sufficiently recognised) heroes of alternative comedy”, and indeed Lederer highlights how the world of stand-up could be difficult when you’re a woman, an outsider, not quite in the gang.

“French and Saunders were brilliant, they were a double act, organised within The Comic Strip in a group, being given opportunities that they were brilliant in.

“I wasn’t in a group. So if you’re on your own, and you don’t belong to Footlights, or anything, you have to invent your own path. But the irony of the [book] title is, I really genuinely don’t feel bitter about it because I wanted it so much.”

Was she envious of her peers?

“No – they gave me wonderful jobs. But I did have a bit of a sulk in my 40s because I wanted a sitcom and didn’t get one. It was recognising that the thing you wanted, or you thought you wanted, wasn’t going to happen, and that other people were getting it. And that is hard.

“The only way up is to recognise you are sulking and get over yourself and do something else. It’s like, if people don’t ask you to a party, or if people don’t ask me on a programme, then why would you continue wanting to be on that programme? I suppose it’s just trying to accept it.

“I’m not saying I have completely, but it’s just trying to accept the world as it is and the limits of what you can do. Writing the book was saying, ‘Look, I was there’.”

She recalls the young Miranda Hart getting her own sitcom series. “Miranda was amazing, and was everywhere, and much younger than me, of course. I missed that opportunity.”

But very few women in the 1980s were given licence to have their own shows and write their own material, she points out, and there was a huge gap until Hart and Fleabag-creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge hit the spotlight more than two decades later.

“Now, it is so different and so brilliant,” Lederer enthuses.

The book has perhaps helped her accept herself for who she is. Sometimes, she agrees, people can think she’s too much, being honest and outspoken, but she’s great at filling in awkward moments at dinner parties.

She writes with great love of the generosity of her fellow comedians, including Jennifer Saunders, who gave her the part in Ab Fab. Dawn French is godmother to her daughter, Hannah, now 33, and remembers every birthday, she points out.

They keep loosely in touch.

“I probably connect with Dawn once or twice a year, which is lovely. I wouldn’t expect to be part of a community of people where I’m not evolving and creating. I think it’s a misnomer that if you’re seen in one programme, that you would then be best friends with them. Because I don’t think that is how the landscape lies for anyone.”

While chasing her comedy dream – often on the tails of her peers – she faced many issues along the way, fearing she wouldn’t get work unless she kept her weight down, which she did with varying degrees of success over the years with slimming tablets and injections, and even losing three stones in three months on a powdered food diet which required borderline starvation.

She spent the money she earned from her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother on a gastric band, writing humorously about how she put weight on after having it fitted (and later had it removed). Laughter and pain pepper every chapter.

Lederer, who lives in London with her second husband, Chris Browne, a semi-retired GP (her daughter is from her first marriage to former newspaper editor Roger Alton) has many regrets, she admits.

“I wish I could manage people better. I think I’ll probably make a mistake every day. I wish I’d got to know my personality a bit more and been a bit kinder to myself instead of battling.”

She’s dipped in and out of therapy over the years. “I do think that there’s something very wonderful about being vulnerable and being helped by another human being.”

Writing the book has enabled her to see how much she has actually achieved.

“It’s a sort of slight passive aggressive thing of being older and invisible and saying, ‘Actually, I did do that and here’s the proof’. I played my part. It wasn’t a huge part, but actually it amounts to quite a lot when you look back.”

Ultimately, she hopes the book will make readers laugh.

“If I do something, I just have to find the funny bone in it.”

Not That I’m Bitter by Helen Lederer is published by Mirror Books, priced £20. Available now.